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The waiting is almost over

This week: Rugby World Cup 2015

By Jack de Menezes

Published 12/09/2015

Ready to go: Sean O'Brien, Paul O'Connell, Rob Kearney will star for Irish
Ready to go: Sean O'Brien, Paul O'Connell, Rob Kearney will star for Irish
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw
Stuart Lancaster is out to inspire England

The eighth Rugby World Cup gets under way on Friday, September 18 at the home of rugby as second-favourites England take on Fiji at Twickenham.

With defending champions New Zealand overwhelming favourites to retain their crown, England - along with the rest of the home nations - will hope that the support of the crowd will roar them on to success in their bid to upset the odds.

Usual suspects South Africa and Australia will also be in the mix, while France and Argentina cannot be ruled out of the running given their pedigree in the international game.

With each World Cup, more is being expected of the Pacific Islands as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga continue to improve, and with Fiji in the so-called 'Pool of Death' along with England, Wales, Australia and Uruguay, they have the means to spoil the party.

So what can we expect to see during the next six weeks of rugby action across England and Wales?

Kiwis all washed up?

Despite heading into the tournament as favourites to win a second consecutive World Cup, New Zealand's squad look to be nearing the end of their cycle. The likes of Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu and the sublime Richie McCaw will play their final game in the All Blacks jersey at some point during the World Cup, while Conrad Smith, Kevin Mealamu and Tony Woodcock will also be appearing for their country for the last time.

While the Kiwis have a number of talented players elsewhere in the squad that will have a huge say in where the Webb Ellis Cup ends up, all eyes will be on these six players in their attempts to bow out on a high.

Before their 2011 success on home soil, New Zealand had developed a reputation of choking on the biggest stage. Quarter-finalists in 2007, semi-finalists in 1991, 1999 and 2003 and runners-up to South Africa in 1995, it appeared that their wait for a second world crown following the 1987 victory would never come.

Australia and France have knocked the All Blacks out twice apiece, and it's worth noting that should the pool stages go as planned, New Zealand will meet Les Bleus at the Millennium Stadium in the quarter-finals - the scene of their memorable 2007 encounter that saw the tournament favourites knocked out.

Back the Aussies

There have always been lingering questions over Australia's pack, but one thing they have been able to boast since the dawn of time is flair and eye-catching talent in the back-line.

With veterans Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell returning following a well-timed tweak to the Wallabies' selection rules, they will join the likes of Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper in what has already been tipped to be the most potent back-line of the tournament.

If Australia can produce a front-eight that are capable of getting on the front foot the 1991 and 1999 world champions simply cannot be ruled out of the equation.

England expectations

It's easy to say that the hosts are under pressure. Just ask Graham Henry, the man who was tasked with leading the All Blacks to a first World Cup success in 24 years with the added impact of the tournament being held in the Land of the Long White Cloud. So for Stuart Lancaster's England, the pressure on them heading into the tournament will be nothing short of crushing.

Lancaster made the bold call of including rugby league convert Sam Burgess, as well as axing Manu Tuilagi and Dylan Hartley for disciplinary reasons.

If England don't deliver a better performance than the quarter-final exit experienced in 2011 - albeit under the leadership of Martin Johnson - then the tournament will go down as a huge failure to deliver on home soil.

Woes for Wales

The Welsh squad is one of immense talent, but even the All Blacks would be tested by losing two of their key players less than a fortnight before the start of a World Cup.

No offence to Mike Phillips and Eli Walker, but they are not of the calibre of Rhys Webb and the mercurial Leigh Halfpenny, Wales' goal-kicking points machine for the past half a decade.

Wales could go a long way to banishing the pain of losing the pair to injury by putting in impressive, match-winning performances, but should they suffer defeat to any of their Pool A rivals, expect talk to immediately turn to the absence of Webb and Halfpenny and what could've been for Warren Gatland's men.

Will Ireland call?

Ireland have never gone into a World Cup with such a strong squad or a favourable route to the semi-finals. For tournament after tournament, the Irish could expect to be drawn in the 'Pool of Death' that normally hosts three of the top eight-ranked nations.

But this time they have been placed in Pool D along with France, Italy, Canada and Romania, and anything less than top spot will be below expectations on the Emerald Isle.

Should they progress as Pool D winners, an expected quarter-final against either Argentina or Tonga is likely to be their reward, and again the Irish would be confident of coming through such ties.

Should Joe Schmidt's side come through, they will be one game away from a first World Cup final, and that's not a bad position to be in at all.

A Pacific notion

All eyes will be on Fiji when the curtain rises at Twickenham, and so they should be. The talk of Pool A has been of England, Australia and Wales, but Fiji will have a major say in the top two that progress to the quarter-finals.

While the Pacific Islanders will be pushed to reach the last-eight, they can severely dent the hopes of one of their rivals. Samoa find themselves in a different position. With South Africa the clear favourites in Pool B, Samoa, Scotland, Japan and the USA will duke it out to join them in the knock-out stages.

Tonga, perhaps the weakest of the three Pacific Islands, can't be ruled out either. New Zealand will have to have a disastrous campaign not to clinch top spot in Pool C, but Tonga will likely threaten Argentina the most in the battle for the runners-up spot. While progress is unlikely, we've seen stranger things happen.

A dose of Les Bleus

It's the age old question that haunts Les Bleus. Dreadful in the Six Nations, a coaching staff that appears to be in disarray and a playing squad that more often than not appears to misfire, the French have maintained a tendency to save their best for the World Cup.

Having never failed to progress to the quarter-finals, three-time finalists France have a certain pedigree when it comes to the big stage, and you wouldn't bet against them.

As mentioned, a possible chance to knock out the defending champions in the quarter-finals at the Millennium Stadium may just be the remedy to get French rugby back to where it belongs.

Belfast Telegraph

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